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Learn about the three most common skin cancers today

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Optum Perks Author

By Optum Perks Author

You see it in magazines, on television, and even on the bus benches as you wait for your ride. The 17th century brought us the first accounts of operations performed for the disease. But how much do you really know about skin cancer?

What is skin cancer exactly?

Cancer is a disease, defined by the National Cancer Institute as an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body. The American Cancer Society states there are several forms of skin cancer, but the 3 most common are:

  • basal cell carcinomas
  • squamous cell carcinomas
  • Melanomas

Basal and squamous cell carcinomas are more common than melanomas. These two types are usually found on areas of the body most exposed to the sun, such as your neck, ears, face and shoulders. It's less likely that basal and squamous cell carcinomas would spread to other parts of your body, but you should still have them examined by your doctor as soon as possible.


Melanomas, although less common, are a far more serious type of cancer. Melanomas can be found all over the body but they're most commonly seen on the trunks of men and the legs of women. Like basal and squamous cell carcinomas, melanomas are almost always curable if detected in the earliest stages of growth.

Signs and Symptoms

Knowing the names of these cancers, while helpful, won't alert you to their presence. We need to know what these bad boys look like. Below are the descriptions (given by the American Cancer Society) of the physical manifestation of each of the 3 skin cancers we've been discussing:

Basal Cell Carcinoma-

  • Flat, firm, pale or yellow areas, similar to a scar
  • Raised reddish patches that might be itchy
  • Small, pink or red, translucent, shiny, pearly bumps, which might have blue, brown, or black areas
  • Pink growths with raised edges and a lower area in their center, which might contain abnormal blood vessels spreading out like the spokes of a tire
  • Open sores (which may have oozing or crusted areas) that don’t heal, or that heal and then come back

Squamous Cell Carcinoma-

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  • Rough or scaly red patches, which might crust or bleed
  • Raised growths or lumps, sometimes with a lower area in the center
  • Open sores (which may have oozing or crusted areas) that don’t heal, or that heal and then come back
  • Wart-like growths


  • new moles or moles that you've never noticed before
  • A sore that doesn’t heal
  • Spread of pigment from the border of a spot into surrounding skin
  • Redness or a new swelling beyond the border of the mole
  • Change in sensation, such as itchiness, tenderness, or pain
  • Change in the surface of a mole – scaliness, oozing, bleeding, or the appearance of a lump or bump

 Who's At Risk?


Not all skin types are as prone to skin cancer as others. The Skin Cancer Foundation classifies skin types on a one through six scale. Type one skin is the fairest shade always burning and never tanning in the sun. Type six skin is the darkest shade and almost never burns as a result of sun exposure. While a type one person is the most prone to skin related cancers, type six people are not impervious. In fact more melanomas are found to be in advanced stages on type six people, because they went undiscovered for a longer length of time.

What Can Be Done?

The treatment options for skin cancer range from topical medication to major surgery. Surgery is not only daunting but can sometimes leave unwanted scarring in fairly conspicuous areas of the body. Because of this, many are now turning to topical treatments for a less invasive treatment method. The two types of medication most commonly prescribed today are 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) and imiquimod. Both are FDA approved and have been shown in clinical trials to be an effective treatment for certain types of skin cancer.

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